Friedlander: Newfound shooting touch just another added weapon in Duke's arsenal
GREENSBORO, NC – After watching Duke shoot 65.4% from the floor and set an ACC Tournament record with 27 assists against his team in Thursday’s quarterfinal victory, Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel offered an unsettling thought for the rest of the teams still alive in the bracket.
And any potential opponents in the tournament to come.
“If they can shoot the basketball like they shot it today, especially from 3,” he said, “that makes them even more difficult to guard.”
The Blue Devils didn’t shoot as well against Miami on Friday.
But they came close.
This time they knocked down 54.9% and made 8-of-16 3-point attempts while recording assists on 16 of their 28 field goals to hold off the top-seeded Hurricanes 85-78 and advance to Saturday’s final of the ACC Tournament.
They’ll take on 2nd-seeded Virginia at 8:30 p.m. in search of their ACC-record 22nd tournament championship and a possible return to Greensboro next week for the 1st 2 rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
While the hot shooting in this tournament has been something of a revelation, considering that it’s come from a team that has forged an identity around a combination of defense and grit this season, it’s hardly a fluke.
It’s yet another sign of the growth coach Jon Scheyer’s young group continues to make, even at this late juncture in the season.
And why the 3rd-seeded Blue Devils are on such an upward trajectory with Selection Sunday looming.
Duke has won 8 straight after a controversial loss at Virginia on Feb. 11, but it’s been since a win at Syracuse 7 days later that the offensive element has been added to its arsenal. It has shot 49% or better in 5 of the 7 games since then while averaging nearly 79 points.
It’s no coincidence that the Blue Devils’ assist totals have also increased over that same stretch. The 16 they handed out Friday were their fewest in each of those 5 sharpshooting performances.
“I just think early in the year we were kind of like letting the ball stick and it was sticking in one guy’s hand,” junior captain Jeremy Roach said. “(Scheyer has) been telling us that all five guys have got to touch it. And when all five guys are touching it, everybody has got confidence.”
It’s hard to argue with that assessment, given the way Duke shot against the Hurricanes.
Roach and the freshman quartet of Kyle Filipowski, Dariq Whitehead, Mark Mitchell and Tyrese Proctor all scored in double figures. All of them made at least 1 3-pointer.
Some of that perimeter efficiency can be traced to an injury to Miami’s 1 serious low post presence Norchad Omier just 66 seconds into the game. The 6-7, 247-pound Arkansas State transfer, who ranks 4th in the ACC in rebounding, came down awkwardly on his ankle, crashed to the floor and didn’t return.
His absence forced Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga into a damned if you do, damned if you don’t decision on how to defend the bigger Blue Devils.
Larrañaga chose to go all in on an attempt to keep Duke from dominating the paint. The tradeoff was giving its shooters more open looks than usual from beyond the arc.
He rolled snake eyes on the gamble.
“You have to understand, because of our size, or lack of it, we’re trying to take care of the paint and keep those big guys out of there,” Larrañaga said. “It’s very difficult for us to do both all the time. We did it well enough to stay in the game, but basically just not quite good enough to win the game.”
The outcome represented an almost complete reversal from the last time these teams met – an 81-59 Hurricanes blowout in Coral Gables on Feb. 6.
While Omier’s absence Friday certainly played a role in the difference between the 2 games, the addition of Whitehead to the Blue Devils’ lineup was even more significant.
The freshman wing missed that game while recovering from a lower leg injury of his own.
Whitehead scored 16 points, including 3 key free throws with 5:12 remaining to turn a precarious 1-point lead into a 69-65 advantage that helped Duke stay in control until a 3-point dagger by Roach finished off the Hurricanes a few possessions later.
Whitehead’s continued development, along with that of rim protector Dereck Lively 2 more elements the Blue Devils continue to add, seemingly with each passing game.
And the best may still be yet to come.